April 2, 2017
I fell in love with baseball as a child. It’s been an enduring if uneasy relationship. My early associations with the sport were mostly joyful, win or lose … a good thing, since it was mostly about losing for my Washington Senators. Low expectations can make life easier sometimes. Even the Senators had their memorable moments, enough to provide an occasional lift for their long-suffering fans. But like most other relationships, my bond with baseball became more complicated as I grew up. When did I allow the love of the game to become sullied by anger and disappointment? Why did I begin to take losing too seriously? Was it because my new team, the Washington Nationals, has managed to raise expectations without totally fulfilling them?
The start of a new baseball season, being nearly synonymous with the beginning of spring, always brings an easing of the heart. I recall those Sunday mornings during the warm weather months when the anticipation of seeing a baseball game was as exciting as the reality. My dad often played golf on Sunday mornings, and I would get down in the dumps if it looked like he wouldn’t get back in time to go to the ballpark. But he usually did, and I was ecstatic. If it rained on a day when we had planned to go, I was inconsolable. My parents tried to dream up distractions, but nothing could really replace the game.
Maybe losses didn’t linger as much then because everything apart from the win-loss record fascinated me. I loved the ballpark atmosphere … and in those days, they were just ballparks, not amusement parks. That’s not to say I don’t think the Nationals are smart to try to draw in young fans by creating a carnival atmosphere on the ground floor of Nationals Park. Petco Park in San Diego, which I visited last summer, also features something of an amusement park, although it’s mainly outside the stadium. Still, I miss the simplicity of earlier times, when the green glow of an outfield underneath stadium lights had its own allure. Some of the vendors were entertainers who developed their own shtick. The phrases they used to pitch ice cream and peanuts would become so familiar that kids would start chanting the words as soon as the guys approached.
The capricious weather of spring and summer adds excitement, at least when the game is played outdoors as the baseball gods intended. Nowadays, teams can’t really afford to cancel games, so they play through or around bad weather as best they can. Rain delays must be handled strategically, since pitchers’ arms are particularly sensitive to being shut down and started up again. On summer evenings lightning often crackles in the distance, and the sound of thunder adds a sense of urgency. Certain cloud formations seem to occur only over a ballpark. And there are those sublime moments when a rainbow signals the resumption of play.
The romantic feelings I harbored as a child centered more strongly on some players than others. There was something mesmerizing about the look of strong, healthy young men in uniforms performing athletic feats. I wanted to know more about them, but there wasn’t much to know. In those days before social media exposed everything, often spreading tall tales in the process, the private lives of athletes weren’t discussed beyond the few basic facts they chose to reveal. Besides that, baseball used to be more of a radio than a TV game, which required fans to exercise more imagination. Even games that were televised didn’t reveal every facial expression and nuance, with replays from every possible angle, the way they do now.
Maybe that’s what got me started making up baseball stories. My imagination concocted pennant races that never happened in real life. Nowadays, some of the romance disappears when you can plainly see the grimaces, pain, and occasional temper tantrums that the game brings about. Nationals fans knew that their fortunes were about to plummet when their young ace Stephen Strasburg blew out his elbow in 2010. His agony, matched by the genuine grief on the face of his pitching coach, was unforgettable. Toward the end of the Nationals’ disappointing 2015 campaign, their fans were treated to the sight of hotheaded closer Jonathan Papelbon losing his temper and putting a choke move on the equally hotheaded star Bryce Harper, who had objected to being criticized by the older player. Our dysfunctional baseball family was exposed in all its warts.
I’d like to reignite some of the old-time joy, if only because the current national mood is so grim, tense, and angry. We need distractions more than ever, and we need to genuinely enjoy them. We don’t need more anger and angst from sports, which are supposed to entertain us. If Nats fans must “hate” Mets fans, or vice versa, it should be a fun kind of hate. Sometimes I allow my dismay about other things, like the state of the country, to muddy life’s simpler pleasures, like watching a competitive game. But if we’re determined to take it seriously, we might as well learn one of the main lessons of baseball: it’s more real life than fantasy. It brings lots of pain to those who care. There is no time clock, which means that anything can happen in any given contest. You can lose a game that you led by ten runs. You can lose that game even if there were two outs in the ninth. These are not tragedies, although they sometimes feel like it.
Thomas Boswell, the superb columnist for the Washington Post, often lectures Nationals fans who devalue the team’s sustained excellence over the past several regular seasons because of their flame-outs in the playoffs. During a recent chat on the Post website, he wrote, “The first responsibility of a sports fan is to figure out: How can I get the most pleasure, the most fun, the most laughs and relaxation for my time and my dollar, for myself, my family and my friends as I possibly can while also being mature enough not to be bothered a great deal — or at least not for very long — by anything that goes wrong.” He sees this as a lack of perspective: “a kind of willful illness, a lack of basic wisdom and judgment about how to weigh our relative experiences, that troubles me and makes me wonder if we are seeing some distortion that is a characteristic of contemporary times.” Words to live by, from April to October.
August 31, 2016
Baseball is the most romantic of all sports, for many reasons. What other game unfolds in a space that fans and players refer to as their “field of dreams”? Unfortunately, those dreams are often shattered. Here in the Washington DC area, baseball has a long, melodramatic history, interrupted by 33 years of non-existence from 1972-2004. We’ve lost three franchises, a record few cities can match. Our most recent pennant was won in 1933. My late father used to recall that team nostalgically from time to time, but those memories are now lost to me. Decades of futility followed, not limited to incompetence on the field. Throughout its history and non-history, Washington baseball has been continually betrayed by bad owners and bad faith from the sport’s authorities, and some of those grievances have lingered into the present. Luckily, there is something poetic about suffering. Early in the 2016 season, when young slugger Bryce Harper struck out with the bases loaded, it was somewhat of a shock. He had hit two grand slams recently, and it had started to seem automatic. For the moment, pitchers had “figured him out.” Mighty Casey struck out that time, as he has many times before and will do again.
Baseball is more up close and personal than other sports. Except for catchers, the players play without masks, which makes it easy to imagine you know them. You would know them if you saw them on the street. When I was growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, there were quite a few sightings of Senators star Frank Howard. Once he signed a dollar bill in the local grocery store for the mom of a friend. My parents saw him once in the Anchor Inn Restaurant, a huge man dining with his comparatively tiny wife. My mom, who was prone to exaggerate on occasion, claimed she almost tripped over his leg.
Baseball harkens back to childhood. Even the bad teams, then and now, exhibited exquisite, often breathtaking skills just to make what are considered routine plays. I used to fantasize about living at the ballpark. How cool would that be? I associated the game with warm summer evenings, rain delays, and rainbows arching over the stadium after the rain delays. At DC Stadium (later RFK Stadium), an accordion-like contraption called a Cordovox used to play “You Gotta Have Heart” and “I Know A Place.” Every time I hear those songs now, I’m back there.
Even the heartbreak was romantic. The Senators had such a unique way of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. One afternoon I overheard one of our neighbors, known to be an ardent Senators fan, screaming at her husband. They were a nice couple, never known to raise their voices to each other. It turned out that the wife was yelling, “How could they have lost?” Her poor husband had just broken the news he’d heard over the radio, that the Senators had blown what she had assumed to be an insurmountable lead. That dear lady died far too soon, of complications from diabetes. My mom speculated that the horrendous game hastened her demise.
It’s easy to take the sport too seriously, especially in the current era of rising expectations. I’ll admit that as I get older, I’m less patient with failure. Do I really love baseball, or do I only love winning baseball? I can’t seem to rediscover the pure enjoyment of the game I used to have, win or lose. I’m ashamed to admit defeats can seriously cast me down. I almost care more about the Nats holding on to their divisional lead during these difficult final weeks of the 2016 season than I care about the upcoming election, although I truly believe that one of the candidates poses an existential threat to the nation, if not to the planet. I can tell myself I’m being ridiculous, but I’m not a psychologist, so I haven’t really figured out why I’m like this. Maybe it’s just that time is growing shorter for a championship through which I could live vicariously.
Losing streaks feel like curses, and sometimes it feels like they’re my fault. Back in June I took a trip to California with my brother and a friend. Our main objective was to soak up some Hollywood vibes, but we also had a chance to catch the Nationals on a West Coast swing. They were playing the Padres and the Dodgers, two teams they should theoretically have been able to beat. Petco Park in San Diego is a particularly fun place, featuring an amusement park outside and a beach-like plot of grass beyond center field. Since so many good seats were unoccupied, we never made it to the cheap seats we had bought, instead grabbing a prime spot in the lower deck. I was afraid we’d be busted for cheating, but there were no ushers around to enforce the rules. Did we really get away with it? I later feared the baseball gods had taken note, because that game helped to set off our team’s seven-game losing streak.
We went on to Dodger Stadium (sometimes more romantically called Chavez Ravine), which provided a totally different experience, as ballparks usually do. It’s the biggest ballpark in the major leagues and one of the oldest. On that first day of summer, the hottest day of the year in Los Angeles, fire billowed from the nearby hills, but once the sun went down the conditions turned surprisingly pleasant. This contest was slated to be an epic pitching matchup (Clayton Kershaw vs. Steven Strasburg), two legitimate Cy Young contenders earlier this season, who have both been bitten by injuries since. Strasburg was scratched that night for unknown reasons, replaced by a journeyman who did his best but was no match for the star.
The fun aspect of baseball is jeopardized when we take it too seriously. The season is brutally long, and sometimes the games are, too. Not much can be done about shortening the games without altering basic strategies, but how about shortening the season? It’ll never happen, because it would cost the owners immediate revenue, but I feel sure the quality of the day-to-day product would improve. Maybe we’d have to endure fewer gut-wrenching losses that might have been more mistake-free if the players hadn’t been dead on their feet after a long summer of exertion. The drama tends to return in the autumn, and the level of play sharpens with the cooler temperatures and the greater excitement of pennant races and playoffs. For Nats fans, though, playoff appearances in 2012 and 2014 brought more agony than ecstasy. What if one of these years, our team actually does win the World Series and gets to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in a never-before-seen baseball parade? It’ll outshine any Inaugural Parade. On the other hand, maybe it’s better to have something left to yearn for.
October 3, 2015
“In spring, everything was sunny.” That was how a recent Washington Post article began its postmortem of the Washington Nationals’ disappointing 2015 season. The article went on to describe “the rise and fall of a dream,” as if the failure of this team to achieve its goals was comparable to the collapse of a nation. Unbeknown to some analysts, many of us fans anticipated from the start that the 2015 season was a disaster waiting to happen. That’s because we understand how damaging super-high expectations can be—and that the baseball gods love to punish hubris.
These things are written in the clouds, after all. Certain deities have had it in for this team ever since it arrived from Montreal in 2005, denuded and abused from a period of neglectful MLB ownership. It was as if the newly constituted team had no right to exist, much less to develop into a contender. A series of near misses and agonizing playoff defeats in the ensuing years can only have one explanation: those pesky baseball gods haven’t let us off the hook yet.
Baseball pundits on the national level seemed to wish for this collapse. Apart from one quote from superstar Bryce Harper before the season began, taken wildly out of context, it was those pundits who kept anointing the Nationals prohibitive World Series favorites. It turns out that winning championships on paper is easy. Those “experts” now have the pleasure of crowing while the fans suffer. One writer I ordinarily respect, John Feinstein, the author of several entertaining baseball books, seems to utterly lose his rational mind when it comes to the Nats. He cited Bad Karma as a primary reason for the Nats’ struggles.
This Bad Karma, in his opinion, has lingered from the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown—three years ago! General Manager Mike Rizzo angered the gods with his arrogance in assuming it made sense to limit Strasburg’s innings in 2012, the year after his Tommy John surgery, because there would surely be other opportunities for him to pitch in the playoffs. How arrogant, fumed Feinstein, to assume such a thing. Never mind that Rizzo followed the medical protocol for such injuries, and that Strasburg did get another playoff opportunity, in 2014. Further, I wonder why the gods are so determined to punish this particular decision. Everyone wanted to see Strasburg pitch in the 2012 playoffs, but Rizzo took the decision upon himself, in the interests of the pitcher’s long-term health. It takes convoluted reasoning to portray that as anything but a selfless act, but it just goes to prove that the baseball gods can’t be reasoned with.
All season long, many fans have been wishing to see more passion and emotion from this team. A few days ago our wish was fulfilled, a little too emphatically. An altercation broke out in the dugout between Bryce Harper and newly acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon, whose bust-your-gut-every-minute lecture didn’t sit well with the young superstar. The fight only served to underscore the final unraveling of this season’s fortunes. As always, the baseball gods got the last laugh.
March 2, 2015
Ever since my Washington Nationals suffered their second early playoff exit in three years, I’ve been in denial that it was really all their fault. Sure, I can point to instances of sheer ineptitude on the field and questionable managing decisions during these playoffs, but it still seems unfair, after twice posting stellar records over the 162-game long haul. So what’s the explanation? Is it a curse or a conspiracy?
Everybody knows the baseball gods punish hubris, and that’s how the most famous curses in baseball history have arisen. The Curse of the Bambino started in 1919, when a foolish Red Sox owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to pay off his personal debts. Not until 2004 did the ghost of the Babe relent. The Chicago Cubs have been in a World Series drought since 1945, all because during the World Series that year the Wrigley Field authorities threw a tavern owner and his billy goat out of the stadium. Are the Nats fated to stumble in the same way every time they get within sight of their ultimate goal? What did they do to deserve this fate? True, they have the Curse of Peter Angelos hanging over them, as the dispute over MASN revenues continues. But I’m guessing Angelos has only business and legal clout, not mystical powers.
At first I resisted the idea that a conspiracy of umpires was to blame. After all, there are many close calls in every game, especially when it comes to balls and strikes, which are not subject to review and reversal. But the fact remains, this very phenomenon twice kept the Nats from advancing beyond the divisional series in the playoffs. Paranoid as it sounds, this theory has actually been advanced by expert commentators, especially those who are former pitchers. Some have suggested there really is a code among umpires that discourages allowing playoff games to end on a called third strike. In 2012, closer Drew Storen, handed a 7-5 lead against the St. Louis Cardinals in the ninth inning of game five, twice threw pitches that could have ended the game and the series in the Nats’ favor, had the umpire adhered to the same strike zone that he had established earlier in the game. The same thing happened to starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann in 2014, while trying to close out what would have been a complete-game victory in Game 2 of the divisional series.
I’m a purist when it comes to umpires. There should be no “special strike zones” for star pitchers, or floating strike zones for different situations. It’s unprofessional for an umpire to do anything less than his absolute best to maintain the same strike zone for every batter in every situation. So why does this playoff game code exist, if it really does? To me, it’s a sign of cowardice as well as incompetence. Are umpires afraid to make decisions that are truly decisive?